It’s bad manners, of course. But I wonder how many times I didn’t realize I was doing this? I’m better now, but due to an injury to and subsequent viral infection (called Bell’s Palsy) in the nerves of my face last summer, I necessarily developed the habit of chewing with my mouth open. And that was because I literally did not have the muscle control to close the right side of my lips around an eating utensil or purse my lips together to hold the food inside my mouth. In the early days, a lot fell out. Saliva ran don my chin. Drinking was difficult. Using a straw—impossible. Using a water bottle was just as impossible. I needed a wide mouth cup and to tilt my head to the left to drink from it.
Yesterday I ate lunch with some adults, and afterward, panicked, thinking, “Oh no, did I chew with my mouth open, my lips lax and revealing chewed bits of everything I consumed?”
Because even after I regained some muscle control over the year, and could physically close my lips better, and even purse them around food somewhat, my facial muscles were so fatigued all the time from the constant need to talk, as a mother, homeschooling parent and tutor, that I had to give my muscles breaks whenever I could, including when I ate. Eating in public was suddenly so exhausting because I had to exert energy and push the stamina of the muscles just to maintain propriety. And the mouth wasn’t the only obstacle.
I’d once lost complete control of my eyelid along with the rest of the right side of my face. When paralysis left and I got back measures of control, a strange thing happened: my mouth and eye could both be closed by my control, but not independently of each other. If I pursed my lips, my eyelid mimicked it. If I blinked, my moth contracted. So, the act of chewing and keeping the mouth closed to hold the food in involuntarily made my eye begin to close or adopt the expression ones chooses when you narrow your eyes and glare at someone. For a long time, I didn’t enjoy eating around others because, while I could control my face pretty well in talking, the required strength of the muscular contractions needed to close my lips was so strong (much stronger than other expressions), I couldn’t keep my eye from doing weird things.
I never had any pictures taken of my face as it was recovering.
Photo by Rudi Resdiawan Kantor via Flickr.
The above is a realistic picture of Bell’s Palsy. You’d think you could give a half smile, like anyone can, but the truth is, making a smile requires the tension of one sides of your face pulling against the other. When one side is lax, the other side–just like a kid at the end of the rope in tug of war–pulls too hard and flies off. You continually give people weird grimaces and sneers. Funny thing, many people think there’s something wrong with the side of the face that’s actually working–like you have a facial tick or something, because your expressions do not look natural. You might be trying to simply smile, or give any expression, and others think you’re twitching, grimacing or having muscle spasms.
Bell’s Palsy is supposed to resolve with 4 weeks to a year, though some people do never recover the loss of those nerves, and damage is permanent. And some people’s faces contain trace evidence–slight asymmatrical qualities or an eyelid or smile that doesn’t quite lift as high on one side as the other. I have had this palsy before, and the first time, it resolved in about a month. This time, no one could really tell me what to expect. Because I didn’t have just Bell’s Palsy. My jaw had been dislocated, damaging nerves, soft tissue and muscle in my face. Only days later did the palsy occur. So no one of the three specialists I saw for care could tell me how long a body with such experiences should take to heal; statistics were about only Bell’s Palsy; there were no such statistics about people who first had a prior injury followed by the virus and palsy.
And now, after a year, I can still experience residual effects if my body is stressed and over tired—or if I eat a lot of sugar or grains. (I eliminated both from my diet nearly a year ago to help my body heal.) But yesterday, eating lunch with others, my concern after the fact is that I retain some habits formed by the recovery period. For so long, I gave myself breaks/recovery time from talking by keeping my mouth relaxed as I ate.
Sometimes one of my kids will remind me and say, “Mom, close your mouth!” And I’m sure it looks weird. I didn’t see myself eat over the past year. Another weird habit that formed was using my teeth to scrape food off the fork or spoon as it existed my mouth. Most people purse their lips around utensils to clean the fork off as it exists—but again, my lips wouldn’t comply… I had to use my teeth as the only rigid surface to serve that purpose. And I sometimes notice that I still eat like that.
So for all these foibles and others I may not even be aware of, I want to apologize to anyone who eats with me. And for anyone who does not know my health history, I want to say, please, don’t judge me as it may appear: hopelessly barbaric when it comes to table manners.
But at least now, I’m talking about habits—things I can work on breaking, when I’m aware, because now my face works! Hallelujah!